Upon his arrival to the Eagles staff, New Jersey native McGovern was confronted with an unending stream of questions about the status of defensive-ends-turned-outside-linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham. The questions came throughout training camp, and were consistent: how effective were Cole and Graham in pass coverage. At the conclusion of the 2013 season, we have our answers. They were not great at coverage. But, they did not need to be. In the Eagles scheme, Conner Barwin was very effective at defending the pass. The area of most concern to the Eagles was the lack of an edge rusher, as the combination of Barwin, Cole, and Graham produced 16 sacks (far short of the 27.5 sacks of the 2008 Steelers outside linebacker tandem of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley).
So it will fall to the Eagles coaching staff, and Bill McGovern, to identify players who can generate a pass rush off the edge. But do not make the mistake that many seem to be. The second half of the season had a different defense play at a much more elevated level, and part of that improvement was the result of Cole and Graham. In fact, in the playoff game against quick release quarterback Drew Brees, the Eagles scored two sacks (one each by Cole and Graham) while getting 3 quarterback pressures. Of the 16 sacks by the outside linebackers in 2013, 12 occured in the second half of the season (on pace for 24 sacks in a season).
In a typical season, the ebb and flow of statistics can be written off to random play. But this team entered the 2013 in a completely new scheme, and the outside linebacker position had the most transition. It took half of a season (where they stood on a 3-5 record) before the team began to play within their scheme. And in reviewing their competition, they played better defensively against very good teams.
The challenge facing McGovern is not just coaching up veterans to learn a new position, but in designing their roles to give them an optimal chance to succeed. As the defensive line matures, so too will the role of outside linebackers fall into focus. In a number of post game defensive analyses, the results have been the same. The defense has stopped the run well, but the pass rush has not been consistent enough. And yet, over the course of the year, pressure did begin to appear.
What does this mean to fans in the off-season? One of the key elements of need for this off-season has been identifying an edge-rusher. If the coaching staff and the front office draw confidence from the way the Birds ended the season, they can look at the outside linebacker in terms of developing depth. With obvious free agent needs at wide receiver and safety, McGovern will look for Cole, Barwin, Graham, and Hunt to elevate their game even more in 2014. The Eagles will likely address the outside linebacker position this off-season, as they will swell their roster to the maximum of 90 for training camp.
It will come down to McGovern as to how to close the gap between need and supply at the outside linebacker spot. Players were improving each week in 2013. Whether that means the Eagles are content to see what a full year of improved play gives, or whether there are new faces will be decided in the weeks ahead. New faces at outside linebacker will most certainly arrive to the roster. And with each new face, it will be up to Bill McGovern to assess, coach, reinforce, reassess, and repeat the process throughout the weeks leading up to roster cuts, and eventually game day.
If team selects a wide receiver, cornerback, or safety at the first pick of the 2014 draft, do not despair. Cole, Barwin, and Graham got us into the playoffs in 2013. With the way the linebackers ended out the season, they are likely to do even better in 2014 – with or without a top rated prospect.